"A present defaults – unless the crowd declares itself": Alain Badiou on Ukraine, Egypt and finitude

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I will say once again that I think that the fundamental figure of contemporary oppression is finitude. The strategic axis of this seminar is to provide the means for a critique of the contemporary world by identifying something within its propaganda, activity etc. at whose centre is the imposition of finitude, that is to say, the exclusion of the infinite from humanity’s possible set of horizons. At each session, from now up until the end of the year, I want to give you an example of the way in which something taking place today, or some commonplace or constantly used category, can be represented as a figure or operation of reduction to finitude. As such, each of these things can be encapsulated in terms of the general oppressive vision of finitude.

Today I would like to take the example of Ukraine, the way in which the historic events in Ukraine serve the propagandist consensus that both constitutes and envelops it (at our next sessions I will address two connected notions, which are similarly hegemonic and bask in consensus: the notions of the republic and of secularism – and what I call false invariants: what is assumed to be an invariant, a commonplace of thought, and even a proof of what it is that unites us).

What strikes me about the Ukrainian situation, considering what we learn reading the press, listening to the radio etc., is that it is captured and understood according to an operation that I would call the complete stagnation of the contemporary world. The commonplace narrative is to say that Ukraine wants to join free Europe, breaking with Putin’s despotism. There is a democratic and liberal uprising whose goal is to join our beloved Europe – the motherland of the freedom in question – while the sordid, archaic manoeuvres of the Kremlin’s man, the terrible Putin, are directed against this natural desire. What is striking in all this is that everything is framed in terms of a static contradiction. Well before the Ukraine affair there was already a fundamental schema constantly at work, distinguishing the free West from all the rest. The free West has but one mission, that of intervening everywhere it can in order to defend those who want to join it. And this static contradiction has neither a past nor a future.

It has no past because – and it is particularly typical in the Ukrainian case – nothing about Ukraine’s own real history is ever considered, named or described. Who cared about Ukraine before last week? Many people did not even have much idea where it was… Ukraine, champion of European freedom, suddenly takes to the stage of History; and this is possible because what is taking place there can be described in terms of the static contradiction between Europe, motherland of freedom, democracy, free enterprise and other such splendours, and then all the rest, including Putin’s barbarism and the despotism that goes with it. It has no past because we do not know where all this is coming from, for example the fact that Ukraine is a component part of what was for centuries called Russia; that only very recently did an independent Ukraine take shape, within the framework of a very particular historical process: the unravelling of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the fact that Ukraine has always had separatist tendencies and that these have constantly been reactive: that is, backed by strongly reactionary powers and even worse. The Ukrainian Orthodox clergy, whose sacred city is Kiev, has played a determining role in all this, and it goes without saying that it is the most reactionary on Earth, a megalomaniac centre of Imperial Orthodoxy. This separatism at certain moments reached extremes that no one could forget, particularly not the Russian people, knowing that the vast mass of the Nazi-armed and organised armies coming from Russian territory were Ukrainian. The Vlasov army was a Ukrainian army. Today we can even read the history of Ukrainians turning entire villages to blood and fire, including French ones. A good part of the repression of the maquis in central France was carried out by Ukrainians. We are no identitarians, we are not going to say: ‘What bastards, those Ukrainians!’, but all this does constitute a history, the history of a certain number of the political subjects in Ukraine.

Moreover, the contradiction has no future, because the future is pre-constituted: the Ukrainians’ desire will be to rally to good-old Europe, an already-existing citadel of freedom. The operations imposing this finitude here bear on time itself. If time is finished, it is because it has been stopped. The time of propaganda is an immobile time. It is very difficult to make propaganda for a time-in-becoming: we can make propaganda for what is but not for what is becoming. And here we have the propaganda that the Ukrainian uprising is static, in that it came out of nothing and is heading towards something that already existed, democratic free Europe.

In France there is an essential personification of all this, namely Bernard-Henri Lévy. Each time that finitude has to be imposed, he pops up to deliver it. We could say that when BHL takes charge, he does so in order to beat the drums of finitude. But the fundamental operation does not at all concern Ukraine: the French propagandists of this affair couldn’t give a damn about the fate of Ukraine, believe me. What interests them is good-old Europe, wanting everyone to see the Ukrainians’ actions as clear proof of the enormous value that we have for the whole of humanity. If even the Ukrainians, whom no one knows anything about and who are presented as rather distant and slightly obscure figures, so forcefully want to enter Europe, to the point of risking their lives – and indeed there were deaths on the Maidan Square – then democratic Europe surely doesn’t count for nothing. It is an apology for the West that creates a sort of desire for the West – in part a real one, a point to which I will return – thus consolidating our own ideological, political, institutional etc. positions.

We could also say that Ukraine is not at all grasped in a genuine present, but only a fake one. As will shortly become apparent, a fundamental theme of my seminar ‘Images of the present time’ is that each genuine present is constituted by the past being twisted toward the future. The present is not that which is inscribed as a homogenous bloc standing between the past and the future, but that which is declared, thus entailing a repetition coming from the past as well as the curve, the tension, projected toward the future, such that the present is the bearer of an infinity of potential. If the present of the Ukrainian insurrection is a fake present, this is to say that it has no past and its future has already come. This is why there is no genuine declaration, this being the marker of any genuine present. To put it another way, the imposition of finitude makes it seem that Ukrainian uprising did not really declare anything new. And when nothing new is declared, nothing is declared at all. What Mallarmé said was very relevant: A present defaults unless the crowd declares itself. What the Ukrainians say is just the same as any propagandist here could do, meaning: 1. I want to enter into marvellous Europe; 2. Putin is a shadowy despot. But saying this, they are not saying much, and nothing with any historical connection to Ukraine, the real life of its people and their thinking, etc. They do nothing but say what others want them to say, only playing their role in the difficult, disharmonious relations between Europe – which is nothing other than the local institutional mediation of globalised capitalism – and Putin, who they say is not very democratic (which is not something he even really wants to be, not his concern). It is a play whose script has already been written.

What we can say is this: the contemporary instance of the declaration is to take over a public square. This is not always the case. There are cases where the declaration is besieging a public building, a large protest march, etc. But for quite a while the historical form of popular collectivity has been the prolonged occupation of a square (Tahrir Square, Taksim Square, the Maidan Square…). And these occupations constitute their own particular time; time and space are deeply unified, as in Parsifal: ‘here time becomes space’. It is a time that allows us the occupation not to have to speak of its own end. A demonstration begins and ends, an insurrection succeeds or fails, and so on. When you occupy a public square, you do not really know: it could last, perhaps for a very long time. Everything seems as if a new form of declaration is being born, or at least a new form of the possibility of a declaration, consisting of taking over an open space in the city. I think that this is very much correlated to the fact that we are now living in the absolute epoch of urban sovereignty. There are no peasant jacqueries, long marches and so on. The city is the prevalent collective mode of existence, even in very poor countries, in the form of monstrous megapoles. The occupation of the city, in the restricted form of the occupation of the central city square, its urban heart, is increasingly the concentrated form of the possibility of the declaration – and no one invented it; it is a historical creation. On the other hand – and I will insist on this point – this is but the formal, searching, unclear condition of the declaration. What happens in the square is a negative declaration. The people who rally in the square, when they do have something to say in common, shout ‘Mubarak, resign!’ or ‘Ben Ali out!’, or, in Ukraine, ‘we don’t want this government any more!’

There is, then, a new type of collective positivity in a given space, the occupation of the central squares of major cities, whose most significant substratum is in fact the prolonged organisation itself, since it is here that the people’s unity is sealed (to survive on the square for a prolonged period it is necessary to organise food, toilets and so on). But, simply put, the declaration does not go beyond its purely negative form, since the assembly that occupies the square is divided along a modernity-tradition axis.

Egypt is the canonical example. As you know, there was no genuine, positive unity between the faction who wanted no more of Mubarak because he was their historic enemy – the Muslim Brotherhood – and those who wanted no more of Mubarak because they, too, had come to nurture a certain desire for the West, and wanted neither religious nor military oppression but a certain series of freedoms fetishised as ‘European freedoms’.

What is happening, in cases like this? The outcome of the declaration is an entirely precarious one because we here only have a half-declaration. In order to be victorious, a narrowly negative declaration presupposes the absolute unity of those who declare it. This was, it is well worth saying, Lenin’s great idea. He said that without iron discipline we will not succeed, because if we do not have a positive, organised unity, the negative unity will soon enough start to break up, divide and become dispersed. We are not dealing with Leninism, here, but we can see well enough on the Maidan Square or any of the other squares of which we have spoken, that beyond the simple statement declaring that ‘we don’t want any more…’ they fall into irredeemable division. This is exactly what is now happening in Ukraine. Effectively you have, on the one hand, democrats and liberals who are driven by a certain desire for the West (those whom our own press call ‘the Ukrainians’) and on the other hand, very different people, organised in armed shock groups in the historical tradition of Ukrainian separatism, and whose vision of the world is more or less openly – but undoubtedly – fascistic. They are happy to say they are for Europe, on the condition that this frees them of the Russians; it is an absolutely identitarian element composed of old-school Ukrainian nationalists who do not at all see their future in terms of ‘European freedoms’. The problem is that, from the viewpoint of town-square activism, it is their forces that dominate; all the rest may well be fine people, but they are in reality largely unorganised (and to the extent that they are organised, it is with a view to winning electoral votes).

Finally, we could say this: in all these contemporary situations of city-square assemblies making their declarations, there are three and not two sides involved. You have, on the one hand, the governments, institutional authorities, parties, army factions, police etc. who make up the established state power and generally have some foreign partner: for instance, for decades Mubarak’s foreign partner was the United States and, to tell the truth, the West as a whole. Then, united in the square by a common negative declaration, two other forces, and not one: an identitarian element (the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ukrainian nationalists) and then the ‘democrats’, that is, those inspired by the desire for Western modernity. That is, we have a tradition-modernity polarity, it being understood that modernity today means modernity under the aegis of globalised capitalism, modernity not being represented in any other way, especially if it is not profitable to do so. This three-sided clash cannot be reduced to a two-sided one, unless finitude is being imposed on the situation.

We ought to reflect on all of Egypt’s history, which is a fascinating history. In Egypt, too, there was a three-sided clash: firstly Mubarak, the Egyptian military apparatus and its clients and patronage networks, and then the two elements on Tahrir Square: the component drawn toward Western capitalist modernity, on the one hand, and on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood – who, it ought to be said, were very much in the majority – representing a singularly traditional force. Their unity was a negative one (‘Mubarak, resign!’), but then once they saw things starting to open up, they had to propose something. This something was elections, elections that provided the mock-up stage arbitrating the relation between two elements whose unity was purely negative. And what happened? Well, the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections hands-down, and the Western, democratic, educated element was wiped out. The Egyptian petty bourgeoisie discovered that its connection to the mass of the Egyptian people was thin indeed. Rightfully angered, as if it had risen up for nothing, this modernising section of Egyptian society went back to the streets: hence the demonstrations of last June, where it rose up again, but this time alone. And by itself it did not count for much. So it favourably welcomed the intervention of… whom? Well, the military. Petty-bourgeois irresponsibility – pardon such crude language – produced this extraordinary phenomenon: the same people who had a few months previously shouted ‘Mubarak, resign!’ now cried ‘Mubarak, return!’ He was called El-Sisi, the name had changed, but it was exactly the same thing: it was the Mubarak regime, second term. He began by committing himself to some rather striking operations, we might say: that is, imprisoning the whole personnel of a government elected by a large majority (during this period, the press hesitated to speak of a coup d’état, because, you should understand, if the Muslim Brotherhood are put in jail that is not truly a coup d’état…) and when its partisans protested they were shot. The army fired into the crowds with no qualms, on the model of the crushing of the Paris Commune; understand, in a single day some 1,200 people were killed, according to Western observers. The sterilisation-by-finitude in the Egyptian situation was extraordinary, because in the last analysis it represented a circularity: the three-sided fight was a circular process. The contradiction between the rising educated petty bourgeoisie and the Muslim Brotherhood with its mass clientele was such that it was the third side that won through.

You can see well enough what was at play, here: is there a real future, a declaration, in the form that we have known for many years now, namely the composite or even contradictory mobilisation that is united negatively, in opposition to the existing despotic government? Should we still – to pose ourselves this question simply – begin by reducing everything to a pre-constituted finitude that reduces everything, in the last analysis, to the historic struggle between democrats and dictators? Especially if some are happy – if I can put it like this – not to worry too much about the return of the dictators, as in the Egyptian case.

For an invention of history, a creation, to come about – that is, something endowed with a genuine infiniteness – there has to be a new form of declaration, establishing an alliance between intellectuals and a large section of the masses. This new alliance was not present in the public squares. The whole problem is to invent a modernity other than globalised capitalism, and to do so by way of a new politics. As long as we do not have the first rudiments of this different modernity, we will have what we see now, that is, negative unities that end up going round in circles. And, from the propaganda point of view, the repetition of the idea that it is the struggle of good against evil, posed in terms which are a caricature of the real situation.

This three-sided clash is falsified because the term ‘modernity’ has already been captured. It frames ‘aspiration’ in terms of consumption and the Western democratic regime, that is, the aspiration to integrate into the ruling order such as it is now. After all, the ‘West’ is the polite name for the hegemony of globalised capitalism. If you want to integrate into that, well that’s up to you, but one must accept that it is no invention, no new freedom or whatever. If you want something else, it is not enough just to be anti-capitalist, which is to base oneself on an abstraction, but also to invent and propose a living form of modernity that is not under the aegis of globalised capitalism. This is a task of extraordinary significance that has only just begun to be resolved. Indeed, classical Marxism believed itself to be the historically legitimate heir of capitalist modernity. It saw well enough that this capitalist modernity led to, or already was, barbarism, but believed that the general internal movement of this barbarism would produce a legacy of civilisation, which revolutionaries would inherit. This approach to the problem is quite mistaken. We can perfectly well imagine that capitalist modernity is a modernity with no heritage other than destruction. My point of view is – where is it going? The people who rally under its banner, without knowing it, in reality aspire to an organised nihilism. The ‘malaise of civilisation’ of which Freud spoke was much deeper than Marxists understood. It was not only a question of distribution, the division of or access to the miraculous fruits of civilisation; nor was it a matter of education (the great idea of people like Tolstoy or Victor Hugo being the universalisation of education, providing civilisation to everyone and thus its reinvention at the hands of those who received it) – ideas which remained strong at the end of the last century.

It seems that this whole enterprise requires an innovation of its own, touching on the symbolic: that is, inventing new parameters for civilisation. This is what I saw in the squares where the crowds rallied. A present defaults – unless the crowd declares itself. Perhaps we are at the stage where the crowd would like to declare itself, namely what I have optimistically called the ‘reawakening of history’. But this declaration does not have symbolic resources upon which to draw. Politically, the question is clear enough: capitalist modernity in a certain sense presupposes that all sorts of means are used to ensure that the educated fraction of the population (the urban petty bourgeoisie, the middle classes etc.) remains profoundly disconnected from the fundamental mass of the population. We can identify the propaganda mechanisms that serve this purpose, and I must say that sadly ‘secularism’ is one of them. Politics consists of overcoming these mechanisms, going beyond them. This is what we call intellectuals’ link to the masses, to use the old jargon. Namely, their capacity to demand not only for themselves, but also for others, in the name of a transformed modernity, the capacity to say what the protest is doing on the square, and not holding onto their monopoly and thus letting the rival component either electorally or violently take charge even over the negative activity that unites them. Egypt gives a universal lesson on this point, and Ukraine will see the same thing, albeit in variants of which I am not yet aware.

The reductionist propaganda operations that are applied to determinate historical situations ought to be called ‘finitude’, and the uncovering of finitude ‘infinitisation’ – that is, the moment when the parameters of the declaration have finally been brought together, the moment when you can, certainly, declare ‘Mubarak, resign!’, but also something else. What, then? Well… in any case, not the desire for the West – it is not this that can plug the hole. We are living through an essential historical tipping point, a moment that already existed in the nineteenth century when people were clear about the negation but not its affirmative correlate. And in this vacuum, the old world reappeared because it had in its favour the virtue of being there already.

Translated by David Broder

You can find the original version of the article here